Around the world, women are calling on men to step up and take on misogyny and sexism. In the wake of the mass killings in Santa Barbara and the #YesAllWomen twitter revolt, led by women internationally, that have made sexism and male entitlement headline news, a growing number of men are responding to the call.
For more than two decades, Chris Crass has been working with men to take on the struggle against sexism and embrace feminism. He declares that patriarchy is a nightmare in all of our lives and that feminist vision, values and practices generate liberation for all of us. He wrote “Going to Places that Scare Me” to share his own journey of coming to consciousness about sexism, about the first time a woman activist he worked with challenged him to address his own sexism and the process he went through to bring feminism into his own heart and the heart of his social justice efforts. This essay is full of personal and organizational lessons intended to help support men on their own feminist journeys, along with all of us committed to building movements to end patriarchy.
An earlier version of this essay was translated into half a dozen languages and used worldwide in study groups, classrooms and social justice organizations. In this version of the essay, written for Towards Collective Liberation, Chris Crass goes deeper into lessons from organizational practice of challenging sexism, and deeper into his own personal struggles and insights. We publish this essay at Truthout to assist the growing number of men looking for feminist resources and to help our movements for collective liberation thrive.
Part I: “How can I be sexist? I’m an anarchist!”
“What do you mean I’m sexist?” I was shocked. I wasn’t a macho guy. I didn’t hate or assault women. I wasn’t a bad guy. “But I’m an anarchist! How can I be sexist?” I was anxious, nervous, and my defenses were up. I believed in liberation, in fighting against capitalism and the state. There are those who are the architects, profiteers and enforcers of injustice and then there was us, right? I was nineteen and it was four years after I got involved in radical politics; my sense of the world was slipping.
Nilou Mostoufi, my comrade and partner at the time, held my hand and patiently explained, “I’m not saying you’re an evil person. I’m saying that you’re sexist, and sexism happens in a lot of subtle and blatant ways. You cut me off when I’m talking. You pay more attention to what men say. The other day when I was sitting at the coffee shop with you and Mike, it was like the two of you were having a conversation and I was just there to watch. I tried to jump in and say something, but you both just looked at me and then went back to your conversation. Men in the group make eye contact with each other and act like women aren’t even there. The study group has become a forum for men in the group to go on and on about this book and that book, like they know everything and just need to teach the rest of us.”
This can’t be true, I thought. Is she mad at me about something else? Maybe she’s just having a hard time and we can get over this.
. . . my heart ached with the possibility that I might be an enforcer and beneficiary of the same violent system that I was against.
She continued, “For a long time I thought maybe it was just me, maybe what I had to say wasn’t as useful or exciting. Maybe I needed to change my approach, maybe I was just overreacting, maybe it was just in my head and I needed to get over it. But then I saw how the same thing was happening to other women in the group, over and over again. I’m not blaming you for all of this, but you’re a big part of this group and you’re part of this dynamic.” While I struggled to understand what she was telling me, this conversation was the beginning of a process that profoundly changed my life. Nilou pushed me to realize that in order to work for liberation I needed to make a lifelong commitment to feminist politics and actively work against male supremacy.
In order to make the commitment, I needed to begin seeing myself as part of complex relationships of power, privilege and oppression and begin to understand how I have internalized the logic of domination. My sense of self was in question and I could no longer see the path I had imagined myself taking as an activist. I doubted myself and immediately felt isolated. Fear replaced my sense of possibility and my heart ached with the possibility that I might be an enforcer and beneficiary of the same violent system that I was against.
This is an essay for other people raised male who identify as men and who, like me, are Left/anarchist organizers with privilege struggling to build movements for collective liberation. It is written for men in the movement who have been challenged on their sexism and male privilege and are looking for support. I’m focusing here on the emotional aspects of my own experience of dealing with issues of sexism and anti-sexism. I’m choosing this focus because it is personally challenging, because it has been important in my political development to have men be open and vulnerable with me about their own process, and because of consistent feedback from women, genderqueer, and transgender people, who I work with that it’s crucial that we not ignore these aspects of the work.
In a discussion with Rona Fernandez, the Executive Director of the Youth Empowerment Center in Oakland and an advisor to the Catalyst Project, she said, “Encourage men/gender-privileged folks to examine the role of emotions (or lack thereof) in their experience of privilege. I’m saying this because I think men/gender-privileged folks also suffer under the system of patriarchy, and one of the most dehumanizing ways they suffer is in their inability/difficulty in expressing feelings.” Clare Bayard, a genderqueer organizer with the Catalyst Project, put it more bluntly: “It took years of study and hard work to develop your political analysis. Why do you think emotional understanding should just come to you? It requires work as well.”
This essay looks to the leadership of women—and women of color in particular—who write about and organize against patriarchy in society and sexism in the movement. I draw inspiration especially from the work of Barbara Smith, Gloria Anzaldúa, Ella Baker, Patricia Hill Collins, Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez, bell hooks, and so many others who provide the political foundations, visions, and strategies for the work that gender-privileged men need to do. The day to day leadership in my life comes from my comrades who have challenged, pushed, and struggled with me hundreds of times in our organizations and our lives, comrades like Nilou Mostoufi, April Sullivan, Johnna Bossuot, Rahula Janowski, Clare Bayard, Nisha Anand, Molly McClure, Marc Mascarenhas-Swan, Rachel Luft, and Ingrid Chapman.
More and more, gender-privileged men in the movement are working to challenge male supremacy. Thousands of us recognize that patriarchy exists; that we have material and psychological privileges as a result; that sexism undermines movements; that women, transgender, and genderqueer people have explained it over and over again and said “you all need to talk with each other, challenge each other, and figure out what you’re all going to do.” However, a far greater number of men in the movement agree that sexism exists in society, perhaps even in the movement, but deny their personal participation in it.
Lisa Sousa, who is part of the San Francisco Independent Media Center and AK Press, told me that in recent discussions she’s had in groups about sexism and gender, she’s heard the following responses from men: “we are all oppressed”; “we should be talking about class”; and “you are just using gender as a way to attack such and such.” When she raised the issue that women generally leave the majority male group soon after joining, the responses included: “men leave our group too”; “women are not leaving more”; “people leave, it’s a fact in volunteer organizations”; “we just need to recruit more women”; and “if women leave, there’s more where they came from.”
These comments are familiar, as I’ve made them and heard other men make them hundreds of times. And while it is tempting to distance myself from the men who made them, it’s important that I remember the times when I’ve made those comments, too. That is, as a person who believes in movement building and collective liberation, it’s crucial for me to connect with the people I’m organizing with. As a person with privilege organizing others with privilege, that means learning to love myself enough to be able to see myself in people whom I would much rather denounce and distance myself from. It also means being honest about my experiences, mistakes, and learning process.
When I think back to that conversation with Nilou and her explanation of how sexism operates, I remember trying not to shut down, trying to listen. The word “But” repeated over and over again in my mind, followed by: “it was a misunderstanding”; “I didn’t mean it that way”; “if I knew you felt that way, I wouldn’t have done it”; “I wasn’t trying to do that”; “I would love to see you participate more”; “no one said they didn’t want to hear what you had to say”; “we all believe in equality”; and “I love you and would never do anything to hurt you”.
Looking back ten years later, it’s amazing how often that same list of “buts” still comes to mind. I’m more like those so-called other men than I’d like to admit. For many of us who have been challenged on sexism, we hear the critique and get stuck in the defensiveness and frustration of not knowing what to do. In my rush to solve the problem, I didn’t really understand the depth of the problem to begin with. I focused on particular circumstances rather then systemic sexism. I felt that everything was very personal and I didn’t know how to place myself in a historical and institutional analysis. I wanted to solve what I perceived to be my partner’s or my comrade’s issues. While I genuinely wanted to help stop painful situations from happening, this focus led me away from taking responsibility in the long-term struggle for revolutionary change.
“But we all want revolution.”
Nilou spent many hours talking with me about sexism. It was tremendously difficult for both of us, and I recognize her courage and generosity in doing this largely in retrospect. A clearly defined dualistic framework of good and bad shaped my politics. If it was true that I was sexist, then my previous sense of self was in question: I must have been bad. She pushed me to develop a more complex framework. Coming from her own experience as a middle class Iranian, she helped me begin to locate myself within a complex power analysis of society in which I had material and psychological privilege as a man. I recognized this as a profoundly important moment in my growth. And it still felt like shit.
Two weeks later, as our anarchist study group meeting came to a close, Nilou raised the concern that “sexism is happening in this group.” “Oh my god,” I thought, “What am I going to do?” It was one thing to be in intimate conversations with my partner about this, but with our whole group? I had unconsciously hoped that Nilou and I could just work all this out privately, and everything else would continue as normal.
She listed the examples she had told me. The five other men in the room now amplified the defensive reaction that I’d had. I didn’t know what to do. I believed that Nilou was right, but I didn’t understand what it meant. Other women started speaking up. They had experienced these dynamics as well and they were tired of it. The other men were shocked and defensive, and they began listing all the reasons why claims of sexism were simply misunderstandings, miscommunications, and misperceptions. With genuine sincerity, they said, “But we all want revolution.”
To understand the situation we faced, I should give some background history. We were all members of the United Anarchist Front, an activist youth group formed in the late 1980s in Whittier, a suburb of Los Angeles in Southern California. At first, we focused primarily on animal rights, passed out literature on vegetarianism at our high school, and regularly protested McDonald’s as part of an international environmental and animal rights campaign led by London Greenpeace. We also held protests against Shell Oil, for their participation in apartheid in South Africa, and we put out an underground newspaper. A driving force in the group was Mike Rejniak, a seventeen year-old working class political punk who dressed like a Catholic school student and was popular in almost every social scene in school. Another chapter of the UAF formed in Orange County, led by Jason Justice, a longtime friend from Boy Scouts. For the first few years, the UAF was essentially a group of teenagers, who came of age together doing politics.
We were further radicalized by the Gulf War in 1991: we participated in mass marches in Los Angeles of over 10,000 people; began reading Noam Chomsky; repeatedly covered our school in anti-war chalk graffiti; passed out anti-capitalist, anti-war literature; argued U.S. foreign policy with teachers during classes; and faced off with the Young Republicans in the debate club (and won!). Through all of this, we created a visible Left/anarchist pole at our high school that gave legitimacy to radical politics, which then gained broader influence. Other students began asking us for our opinions about a wide range of issues. We were asked to write editorials for the school paper and an anti-Gulf war piece for the annual. More and more, people began handing out our flyers despite occasionally being sent to the principal’s office, and our protests on a variety of issues went from drawing a half a dozen to more then thirty people.
The UAF itself was a handful of people, but our social scene grew to over sixty, with many more passing through our frequent parties which brought together young people from multiple high schools and the local community college. Many began exploring feminist, anarchist, and socialist politics and attending demonstrations. In addition to regularly distributing flyers on current issues from a radical perspective, we distributed anarchist newspapers from around the country and books on anarchist politics and history. We also distributed social justice t-shirts, buttons, stickers, and patches which gave people an immediate way to publicly express their politics. Many of us were white and middle class, with a large number of working class young people and a smaller number of people of color. Men in the UAF were regularly accused of being queer, because of our politics and public displays of affection. Rather than deny it or get defensive, we argued that there wasn’t anything wrong with being queer: the problem was homophobia. Some of us dealt periodically with anti-gay slurs and occasional threats of physical assault on and off campus, but we stuck together. While most of us were primarily heterosexual, it became a badge of honor to be called queer, whether you were or not. Several people in our circles came out as queer and others who were queer joined our community. At parties, people of all genders regularly made out with each other, and we talked openly about safe sex, masturbation, and consensual sex (particularly between men and women). We had designated drivers and tried to have all of our parties at houses where people could stay the night so as to cut down on drunk driving. While we had a long way to go, we were actively trying to create counter-cultural youth spaces that reflected our political commitments (1).
In 1992, others began working with the UAF, including April Sullivan, the first woman to formally join the group. While women regularly participated in the activities of the group, April was the first to formally become a member, take on responsibilities, and help plan activities. The lack of women’s involvement was in no way due to a lack of interest. It was due primarily to the insular and informal leadership structure based on male bonding that had developed, combined with our lack of understanding and skill about building a group. We worked with other anarchist groups around Southern California and joined the national Love and Rage Network, which put forward revolutionary anti-imperialist, feminist, anti-racist anarchist politics in their monthly newspaper. We got together regularly to read Love and Rage and other anarchist publications and books at the local coffee shop in the mall (2).
The Rodney King verdict in 1992 further radicalized us, as we went to Black led, multiracial anti-police brutality marches and debated about the meaning of the L.A. riots at school. White students and some teachers talked about the “senseless violence” of the rioters who were acting like “animals.” The racist violence of the police and the public sanctioning of it in the courtroom was absent from their denunciations of “mindless rioters.” The anarcho-punk newspaper Profane Existence, put forward an analysis of how de-industrialization in South Central, corporations moving to third world countries to exploit cheaper labor, Black workers removed from the labor market and the history of racist police brutality were all central to the L.A. uprising. Profane Existence supported the riot and encouraged activists to join in anti-police brutality struggles. We used this analysis in debates with white students and teachers and in our writing around the verdict and riots.
With more and more people coming to protests, our social circle growing, and the radicalizing experience of the Rodney King verdict, a few of us decided it was time to expand the UAF and get ourselves organized. We primarily discussed and planned our work informally over coffee or beer with two or three of us making all the decisions and holding all the responsibilities. We had just recently participated in our first formal meetings, organized by Long Beach Food Not Bombs (FNB), and it blew our minds. They had agendas and facilitators and used consensus decision making with over twenty people to develop a plan for a Southern California Anarchist Gathering. We set goals and formed work committees to map out work plans to make it happen. We left those meetings inspired with new ideas and tools for organizing. We invited people from our social circle to join the UAF and began holding weekly meetings. Soon we had a dozen members, and another dozen who regularly participated in group work. We decided on actions to take, formed work committees, and launched a study group to collectively support one another’s political growth. Our work gained momentum and we began collaborating more with anarchist collectives around Southern California.
Her ideas coming from me were heard and taken seriously, when they were dismissed coming from her just minutes before.
We were six months into the process of building this collective when Nilou raised the issue of sexism in the group. Men immediately began arguing with Nilou about the points she raised; they were defensive, and most of the other women were quiet while Nilou tried to explain herself. I sat quietly as well, confused and scared to say anything. April, who came from a white working class Irish family and had been in the group for well over a year, pulled me aside. She gave me example after example of sexist behavior. Men in the group didn’t trust her to handle responsibilities, even when they were newer to the group. She wasn’t looked to for information about the history or work of the group, nor was she asked to share her thinking on political questions. While people looked to and asked Mike and me for political direction in the group, she was usually ignored. Soon everyone came over to hear what April was saying. April put forward examples that she had just clearly explained to me and other men denied them as misunderstandings.
With both Nilou and April deeply frustrated and pulling back from the conversation, I restated the exact same examples given by April. My comments were followed with begrudging agreement from other men that perhaps these incidents were sexist and mistakes had been made. April called it out immediately and explained what was happening. Her ideas coming from me were heard and taken seriously, when they were dismissed coming from her just minutes before. There it was. I still didn’t want to believe that sexism was happening, but now I saw it. I felt horrible, like a kick to the stomach. Nilou and April followed this up, trying to get the men to agree that there was a problem. How could this be happening? None of us wanted or intended to create these dynamics.
Two months later, I was sitting in a men’s caucus – silent and scared. We didn’t know what to talk about and could feel the collective anxiety building. Nilou and April had proposed that the UAF spend a day talking about sexism. We agreed to it, and they developed a plan. Our day began by separating into women’s and men’s groups to each talk about how we have been impacted by patriarchy and sexism; we would then come back together to talk about how to challenge sexism in the UAF. “What are they talking about?” we asked ourselves. We awkwardly tried to talk about sexism: “Why do we challenge racist jokes and laugh at sexist jokes?” But mostly we looked at our watches and waited.
The group re-united: women entered the room arm in arm energized by a powerful discussion; the men stood around, disheveled and nervous. The women talked about their experience of sexism in the group, about ways that men demonstrated disrespect to women and undermined women’s work in the group. They explored ways that sexism was pitting them against one another. They realized that some of them blamed other women who spoke for taking up all the space, when it was really sexism that denied them space as women and left them fighting each other for that five minutes out of an hour. There was jealousy between women based on who was dating men in the group, and this too was related to sexism. They discussed the dynamic that women who made out with men in the group had more access to discussions about the group and therefore had more information than other women, who then resented their position in the group. They talked about ways that they competed with one another for men’s attention and how they looked to men as leaders in the group rather than each other.
It was quickly apparent that the men’s caucus had not even scratched the surface of the kind of depth and honesty reached by the women’s caucus. Rather than providing a meaningful report back, men began questioning what the women said. Without any sharing from men about our reflections on sexism, women were now defending the points they had made. I felt horrible and struggled to believe what I was hearing women say. “We need to just listen,” was the most that I could contribute to the conversation.
“This is systemic, just like capitalism, and it’s not just about you.”
Several people of different genders left early in tears, hurt and overwhelmed. The meeting had taken place at my parent’s house and my Mom joined towards the end of the discussion. She asked to speak. “You’re all taking on enormous issues and these issues are hard. It makes me happy to see you all at such young ages seriously take them on. It shows that you really believe in what you’re fighting for and it’s a conversation that doesn’t happen in one day. I’m still working on these issues. You should be proud of yourselves for your courage and honesty.” I could feel the heaviness in the room as we looked at each other, many with tears in our eyes and frustration on our faces. It was helpful to get perspective and realize that we weren’t going to end sexism in one discussion. We committed to continue talking about sexism.
Over the next few months, an important development took place. We regularly read anarchist newspapers and zines from around the country as lifelines to a broader movement. We looked to other groups for examples and models to bring to our work. The journal Free Society, based in Minneapolis, devoted an entire issue to articles about other anarchist groups’ experiences dealing with sexism and internal power dynamics. We devoured the articles for a study group meeting and they transformed how we, men in particular, were relating to the discussion. “It’s not that we’re just fucked up – these issues are coming up in groups all over the country.” Women used the articles to highlight what they had been telling us: “This is systemic, just like capitalism, and it’s not just about you.”
Through further discussion, we developed a higher level of unity about the need to challenge sexism and power inequality in our group as a key part of our overall work for social justice. Out of this process we developed a new focus in our work as the UAF.
Part II: Challenges and Lessons from Organizational Practice
While the United Anarchist Front was working on ways to challenge sexism and share power in our group we began working closely with Long Beach Food Not Bombs (FNB).
FNB is a network of volunteer-based economic justice “people before profit” groups that share free food in public places to provide a direct service and protest homelessness and poverty. People in the Long Beach group were a few years older than us and had more experience. Women in the group, particularly Camille Ortanez, who played prominent roles, were well read in anarchist theory and history, and became role models for us of women’s leadership.
We decided to start a Whittier chapter of FNB, primarily to take on work that would share responsibilities and power in the group. We were trying to address the critique that men held all the power in the group and that this was, in part, because of the skills we had and our higher comfort level with theory and political analysis. Most of the responsibilities that we identified were making propaganda, maintaining the mail correspondence with anarchists from around the country, planning actions, and running the meetings. In retrospect, we were really struggling with who felt a sense of ownership over the organization. Who felt confident and supported in representing the organization and guiding it forward? Men in the group regularly gathered to read anarchist theory, history, and news together, while women were overwhelmingly unsupported in pursuing similar study. Most of the visionary thinking about the group was held informally amongst male friends who then led the group in that direction. While being grounded in the politics of the organization is important, it was primarily about who felt confident in the role of moving the group forward and who had the social training to take charge and provide leadership.
… rather than changing the study group to find creative ways for everyone to feel supported and empowered in developing their political analysis, we de-emphasized the importance of having analysis and ended the formal study group.
FNB presented an opportunity for everyone to participate in a meaningful way. Members did not need to be well versed in anarchist classics by Kropotkin to collect, cook, and serve food (3). Additionally, FNB was a pro-active way of expressing our politics – critique of capitalism, vision of a cooperative society, and strategy of direct action to get there – through work that involved the whole group, rather than making a speech or writing a flyer. FNB created hundreds of opportunities for members of the UAF to talk with people in the community about who we were and what we believed. There were also dozens of easily identifiable roles and responsibilities for people to take on, rotate, and share. Women played leading roles in FNB, and this positively shifted dynamics in the UAF. The other major reason for starting an FNB chapter was to raise consciousness about capitalism and poverty. The UAF regularly volunteered with a local food pantry that distributed food to hundreds of poor and working class families and a few dozen homeless people in the community. The majority of people coming to collect food were working class women of color and immigrants. We saw FNB as a vehicle to do concrete external work to challenge inequality in society.
Our activities built momentum, and more people began joining FNB. We had half a dozen articles about FNB and local homelessness in the Whittier Daily News, and we gained support from churches and community groups. We combined the fun of our social scene with political work by preparing meals on Saturday nights for the Sunday lunch serving. We were able to mobilize more people to demonstrations and rallies against police brutality and the growing right wing. We organized a local demonstration against neo-nazis and the Ku Klux Klan as part of a national day of action called by the Love and Rage Network. While our overall efforts become more effective, we faced new challenges in our efforts to challenge sexism and power inequality in our group. I am going to focus on three that proved particularly challenging.
First, some of us (of different genders) began to shy away from activities where sexism had manifested. For example, rather than changing the study group to find creative ways for everyone to feel supported and empowered in developing their political analysis, we de-emphasized the importance of having analysis and ended the formal study group. People continued to study politics in school, and on their own, but we largely moved away from trying to develop group analysis to guide our political work. This made it difficult for us to think long term about what we were trying to accomplish. It also meant that new people brought in through FNB didn’t have a space to formally study our politics and develop their own larger analysis. It would have been helpful to ask people in other groups for help to think of ways to study and learn together in new empowering ways.
Second, a negative dynamic developed among some of the men who held a lot of the responsibilities and power in the group. A very crude conception of equality, based in a lot of fear and guilt, developed in which no one had anything to teach anyone else because we’re all equal, and to know more than someone else was an expression of inequality. Some men felt bad for having skills and experience, because it reflected the patriarchal power that privileges us to have those skills and experiences to begin with. Other men felt resentful of this dynamic and pulled away from the group. Women were pushed into positions of responsibility and given no orientation about how the work had been done and then little to no support to keep it going. My own logic went something like this: if you assume you need to teach someone how to do something, then you’re assuming that they can’t figure it out themselves. For me, the historic and institutional system of male supremacy was blurred into a very personalized and individualized understanding of patriarchy that led to guilt, frustration, and few possibilities to change organizational practices and culture. I was operating more from a fear of being sexist than having an understanding of how to practice feminism. We primarily had a list of what not to do, rather than what to do. But we were learning.
We began doing skill shares, where we spent an hour going over how to do something. This was a good step, but we needed a process of transferring skill and knowledge over time. Further, we needed to change the culture of our work. Frequently, it was assumed that women didn’t already have skills to bring to the work and that they wouldn’t be able to do a good enough job. This came across in numerous comments on the variation of “are you sure you can do that” when women volunteered, while men with less experience received no such comments. A lesson from this dynamic was the need for pro-active strategies and ideas for how men could undermine male supremacy, support women’s leadership, and develop feminist leadership as men. Another lesson was that space needed to be given for women and new people, in general to take on responsibilities in a supportive and encouraging culture that passed on lessons, but also recognized that there isn’t just one right way to do everything.
Left activists need to go through a revolutionary process of our own while simultaneously working for revolutionary change in the world.
Third, we began to struggle with the question: “If we can’t resolve these issues in our own group, then how can we change society?” We didn’t have the skills or experience to put ourselves into a larger historical context and see our actions as part of a long-term process of social change. Some of us began to think that we had to create equality in our group first and then work for equality in society. Others argued that we needed to do both and that the process of changing the conditions in society creates new possibilities for how we live and organize. However, as a group we generally saw our inability to end sexism as an organizational failure as opposed to seeing our ongoing commitment to challenging male supremacy as a strength to build on over the long haul. While the dynamics of sexism are always at play in a patriarchal society, we experienced them much more sharply as a result of our own personal and organizational shortcomings. We were sprinting to end sexism immediately, as we lacked an analysis and strategy to help pace ourselves with benchmarks and goals to help us stay on track and appreciate victories and growth along the way.
We continued to do our work as the UAF, and our FNB chapter continued to mature. We organized community support and beat City Hall when they tried to ban our food servings at the local park. We brought in new people and we continued to have fun together. As the UAF, we worked against student fee hikes and for Ethnic Studies at the community college many of us attended. We took Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies classes together and continued to support one another’s political growth. The UAF ended when people moved away and moved on to other projects. Whittier FNB continued for several years, with Sam Smotherman, one of many Christian anarchists in the UAF, playing a leading role helping to bring in a whole new group to continue the work. Many of them then went on to start the Los Angeles chapter of the Anarchist Black Cross, supporting political prisoners.
My experience with the UAF pushed me to recognize that Left activists need to go through a revolutionary process of our own while simultaneously working for revolutionary change in the world. The institutions of exploitation and domination have a logic that presents injustice as rational and natural. That logic is core to our identities across the gender spectrum and has profoundly different consequences. By identity I do not mean biology, but the political and economic process that socializes and positions us in this society, often against one another. Nilou challenged me to develop an understanding of who I am through a systemic understanding of the world, and then she expected me to work alongside her and others to transform this system – and in the process transform myself.
It was becoming clear to me and other men that challenging sexism was far more than learning how to make eye contact with women in group discussions and asking them what they thought. Indeed, it was a political commitment to challenging a system of power that operates on political, economic, social, cultural, and psychological levels. My lack of eye contact is one of thousands of subtle ways that male supremacy enforces the worldview that women’s work is insignificant, marginal, and/or non-existent. I learned later about the relationship of patriarchy and capitalism through socialist feminists like Maria Mies, whose book Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale was discussed in Love and Rage. Mies explained that this male supremacist understanding of women’s work is key to the historic development of capitalism, as women’s unpaid labor provided the foundation for capital accumulation. While I wanted to just stop being sexist, we were learning that this was part of a long-term collective struggle to transform the world in which we live.
This was the beginning of my understanding that people with privilege needed to go through a process of developing identity politics based on their privileged identities. The goal of this would be to develop analysis for people with privilege to understand themselves in relationship to both historical systems of oppression and systemic social change. These politics would be rooted in a commitment to collective action for revolutionary change. This would be a revolution against those systems that create three categories of people: people with economic and political power to shape, define and enforce social reality; those with economic and political privilege and access to institutions of power in that social reality; and those whose exploitation and oppression create the economic and political power in that social reality (4).
This was also the beginning of seeing a clearer need for strategies of developing collective power between oppressed and privileged communities to build broader movements with a vision of collective liberation.
Part III: “What Historical Class Am I in?”
“Do you know what class you’re in?” As a white, middle class male taking Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies classes, I was asked that question a lot. In a Black Women’s history class, someone offered to help me figure out which class I was looking for.
I understood why people asked me and I understood that the question wasn’t just about class as in a classroom, but class as a social category in a white supremacist, patriarchal, heterosexist, capitalist society that divides people unequally. I knew what class I was coming from and I knew that my relationship to Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies was complicated. I knew some people didn’t want me in those classes and I knew that my very presence made others feel uncomfortable. Most of the teachers and some of the students told me that they were glad I was there. It helped me see how complex these struggles are and that there are no easy answers.
What I read and studied in college – including women of color feminism, Black liberation struggle, Chicano/a history, colonialism from the perspective of American Indian history, Western democratic theory, labor history and organizing, Marxism, queer theory, and anti-racism from the perspective of immigrant and refugee women – impacted me profoundly. Additionally, having people of color – and women of color in particular – instruct, guide, and grade me was incredibly important to my psychological development in ways that I was not aware of at the time. I had had few role models, authority figures, teachers, or mentors who were people of color while I was growing up. To have people of color, particularly women, with progressive/Left/radical politics lead my educational development was a subversive shift of the power relationships that, while not mentioned on the syllabus, was central to my studies.
I attended community college for four years and then went to San Francisco State University. I chose SF State because in 1968, its students had organized to win an Ethnic Studies department through a six-month student strike led by the Black Student Union and the Third World Liberation Front. Many of my professors had been involved in social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Student struggles had won institutional changes at colleges around the country, and it was important to my education to remember that Ethnic or Third World Studies, Women’s Studies, Labor Studies, Queer Studies, and other similar programs exist because of such effective student-led struggles.
. . . as a white person and a man, I needed to consider the legacy of racism and sexism to which I am connected, and I needed to take this into consideration in how I related with other people.
Learning in a community of largely women and people of color also deeply impacted because it was the first time that I’d ever been in situations where I was a numerical minority on the basis of race or gender. Suddenly, race and gender weren’t just other issues among many, but central aspects of how others experienced and understood the world. The question I sometimes thought silently to myself – “Why do you always have to talk about race and gender?” – was flipped on its head: “How can you not think about race and gender all the time?”
Over time, I developed a strategy for my Ethnic and Women Studies classes. I kept pretty quiet for the first month or so of class, pushing myself to really listen to the professor and other students (who often shared experiences from their lives what were very different from mine). However, it was also important for me to be clear about my reasons for being in the class early on. I looked for an opportunity to express my opposition to white supremacy and patriarchy (and sometimes capitalism) as systems of oppression from which I benefited. This often happened in discussions of why we were taking this class. I was nervous and wanted to put it off to some other time, but my comments were generally met with a sigh of relief and a few smiles. It was not that saying this changed everything, but I understood it as my responsibility to try and build trust and be clear about my intentions. Some white people denounced Ethnic Studies as reverse racism and some men dismissed Women’s Studies as training for “feminazis,” while most white people and men remain silent. I knew that, as a white person and a man, I needed to consider the legacy of racism and sexism to which I am connected, and I needed to take this into consideration in how I related with other people. People often told me later that they were nervous that I was going to argue all semester that racism and sexism don’t exist. This helped me think more about what it would mean to develop a white anti-racist and feminist male practice that could become a collective counter-force to the tradition of white racism and male sexism. Seeing myself in the context of history and possibility was critical for my development. Over the course of each semester, I participated in dialogue and pushed myself to fully engage with the material by sharing my own experiences and thoughts as well. While I paid attention to these group dynamics, my focus was on developing a historical, institutional analysis of how power operates in society, lessons from past liberation movements, and theory to inform pro-active strategies for today.
The other part of my school strategy was to participate and raise questions from an anti-racist and feminist perspectives in my Western Civilization, Political Science, and other white, male dominated classes. People of color and women with whom I worked were clear that this was something they felt I had a responsibility to do. “They expect it from us and dismiss us as angry, emotional, or stuck in victim mode. You need to use your privilege to get heard by white people and men.” The goal wasn’t to necessarily change the professors’ perspectives, but to open up space for critical dialogues about race, class, and gender with the other students.
This was extremely educational for me, because frequently I came across as cold, angry, or self-righteous, none of which were particularly helpful. If my goal was yelling at men and white people to alleviate my own guilt and shame for being white and male, then this was perhaps a useful approach. However, if my goal was to actually encourage white people and men to embrace anti-racism and feminism, then I needed to be more complex and honest with myself so as to communicate from a place of love. I needed to take time to really understand my motivations. I needed to get grounded in an understanding of my self-interest in liberation. I often overcompensated for how nervous I was to raise points, and as a result focused more on what I was going to say than how I was communicating it. With practice, my approach changed and I became more grounded, self-confident, and open to dialogue. Understanding my motivation and my goals for anti-racist work with white people and feminist work with men led me to a longer term perspective on the work. I also felt less of a need to prove myself to people and could focus more on working with people.
My educational experience was often challenging. I grew up believing that I was a lone individual on a linear path with no past. History was a set of dates and events that, while interesting to learn, had little or no relationship to my life. I was just a person, doing my own thing. Then I started to learn that being white, male, middle class, able-bodied, mostly heterosexual, and a citizen of the United States meant that not only did I have privileges, but that I was rooted in history. I was part of social categories embedded in and shaped by history.
Part of being in those groups means being deemed “normal,” the standard by which all others are judged. My images of just being “my own person” were now joined by images of slave ships, indigenous communities burned to the ground, families destroyed, violence against women, and white ruling class men using white poor men to colonize peoples of color and the Earth.
I remember being in an African American women’s history class, attended almost entirely Black women. I was one of two white people, one of two men, and the only white guy in the class. We were studying slavery, Ida B. Wells’ anti-lynching campaign, and the systematic raping of enslaved African women by white male slave owners – millions of rapes, sanctioned and protected by law. The professor talked about the history of white men who claimed to be protecting white women from Black male rapists who lynched hundreds of Black men. I sat there with my head down and I could feel history in my stomach and in my eyes as they filled with tears. Who were those white men and how did they feel about themselves? I was scared to look into the faces of the Black women in that room. “While there is mixing of races because of love, our people are so many shades of Black,” the professor said as she looked around the room, “because of generation after generation of institutionalized rape.” I could hear other students crying, and I was scared wondering who and what kind of white man I would become.
I knew on an intellectual level that Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies come out of histories of struggle. But being in those classes helped me experience them as spaces to actively contest dominant ideology and create a counter-worldview based on anti-racist, feminist left politics. It has been primarily people who look like me who are behind the efforts to shut these programs down.
Part IV: “This Struggle is My Struggle”
“I haven’t the faintest notion what possible revolutionary role white heterosexual men could fulfill, since they are the very embodiment of reactionary-vested-interest-power.” –Robin Morgan, from the introduction of Sisterhood is Powerful
I grew up believing that I was entitled to everything. I could go anywhere and do anything, and wherever I went, I would be wanted and needed.
“Face your fear/ the fear is you/ you cannot run/ you cannot hide/ the fear is you/ in the end, what have you done/ can it be true that the damage you bring is greater then the good you make/ face your fear/ embrace your fear/ the pain inside has truth inside/ let it out/ let it out/ when the socialization is gone/ what is left/ where will you go/ what will you do/ let it all out and who will you be/ can I move forward/ can I move forward/ open it all up/ in your heart the hope is there/in your heart the truth is there/find it/find it/in this revolution there is a revolution for you/” – song I wrote for myself to think of, with a punk flavor, when having a “what if Robin Morgan is right?” moment.
I have gone through periods of hating myself, feeling guilty and afraid. I know in my heart that I have a role in liberation struggle, and I know that there is useful work to do. Still, though, the question, “Am I just fooling myself?” haunts me. That is, am I fooling myself to believe that I am more useful than problematic?
Robin Morgan’s quote is useful to struggle with, but not to get stuck on. I meditate on this question from time to time, because I grew up believing that I was entitled to everything. I could go anywhere and do anything, and wherever I went, I would be wanted and needed. The revolutionary vision that drives me is for everyone to grow up believing they are wanted and needed. We want to build cooperative institutions so everyone has healthy food, good housing and healthcare, and communities in which all of us are raised in loving and supportive families and communities. However, this is not the case today.
Patriarchy taught me, in ways both subtle and blatant, that I was entitled to women’s bodies, time, and energy and that I was entitled to take up space and express my ideas and thoughts whenever I wanted to, without consideration for others. This consciousness came out of the lived reality of growing up in a society that is indeed designed and built for people like me.
I could handle denouncing patriarchy and calling out other men from time to time, but to be honest about my own sexism, to connect political analysis/practice to my own emotional/psychological process, and to be vulnerable is scary.
This is a very different reality and process of socialization than that of most people in this society – people who are told to shut up, keep it to themselves, hide who they really are, get out of the way, and never forget how lucky they are to be allowed here to begin with. I think it is healthy to not assume I am always needed, to learn to share space and power, and to work with others to realize the roles that I in fact can and should play. What is unhealthy is how rare it is that gender-privileged men talk with each other about these issues and support each other through the process of challenging sexism and developing a healthy and loving feminist male identity and practice.
Laura Close, an organizer with Students for Unity in Portland, discusses this in her essay “Men in the Movement.” She writes, “Every day young men wake up and decide to get involved in activism. Often they encounter language and discussions about their male privilege that alienate and silence them without anyone actually supporting them to decolonize their minds. Consider what it would be like for [an] ally man to take younger/newer guys out to coffee and talk about his own experiences as a guy in the movement. Talk about what you’ve learned! Consider what it would mean for men to cheer on other men who are making progress towards becoming allies.”
She put out a challenge for men to mentor other men engaging in anti-sexist work. I knew she was right, but I was afraid of doing it. Sure, I had plenty of close gender-privileged friends, but to make a political commitment to develop relationships with other men and be open with them about my own struggles with sexism was terrifying. It was terrifying because I could handle denouncing patriarchy and calling out other men from time to time, but to be honest about my own sexism, to connect political analysis/practice to my own emotional/psychological process, and to be vulnerable is scary.
It would mean being vulnerable about my own internal struggles to actualize feminist politics in my daily life. In Women’s Studies classes, I often got props for being there. The level of consciousness of feminism – let alone political commitment to it – amongst most gender-privileged men is so low that just reading one feminist book and saying “I recognize that sexism exists” meant that I was way advanced.
While the level of consciousness and commitment to feminism is generally higher amongst gender-privileged men in activist circles, it is not that much higher. I have faced two major struggles throughout most of my political life: genuinely wanting to contribute to collective liberation struggle, and feeling a deep level of fear that I was not coming anywhere close to that commitment. It is far easier for me to make declarations against patriarchy in classrooms, political meetings, and in writing than it is to practice feminist politics in my personal relationships with friends, family, and partners.
What am I afraid to admit? That I struggle everyday to really listen to voices I identify as women’s. I know my mind wanders more quickly. I know that my instant reaction is to take men’s opinions more seriously. I know that when I walk into rooms full of activists I instantly scan the room and divide people into hierarchies of status (how long they have been active, what groups they have been part of, what they have written and where it’s been published, who their friends are). I position myself against them and feel the most competitive with men. With those I identify as women, the same status hierarchies are tallied, but heterosexual desirability enters my mind. What is healthy sexual attraction and desire and how does it relate to my training to systematically reduce women’s identities to sexualized objects? This gets amplified by the day-to-day reality that this society presents women as voiceless bodies to serve hetero-male desire. I am talking about almost never having zoned out on what a gender-privileged man is saying because I was thinking about him sexually. I have repeatedly found myself zoned out thinking about sex while listening to women who are organizers, leaders, visionaries, my friends, my comrades. I’m all about crushes, healthy sexual desire, and a pro-sex orientation. That is not what I am talking about. This is about power, entitlement, and women’s leadership being marginalized by hetero male desire in a society that is violently misogynistic and male supremacist.
I wish I didn’t get defensive on a regular basis, but I do. I get frustrated and shut down by conversations about how power operates between my partner and me. I get defensive about how the world interacts with us and how that influences our dynamics. I know that there are times when I say, “Alright, I’ll think more about it” when I am really thinking, “Leave me alone.”
. . . love is impossible where the will to dominate exists.
Male supremacy negatively impacts how I communicate with my partners, friends, and comrades. It negatively impacts how I want, express, conceptualize, and make love. It negatively impacts how I live my life and how I organize. Male supremacy hurts men’s relationships to themselves, to women and people of other genders, and to the earth. It has shaped our emotional lives so as to effectively advance a violent, militaristic, misogynistic, anti-queer, brutally competitive economic system. I am enraged by the resulting damage I see in men’s lives all around me.
Patriarchy tears me up. I have so many fears about whether or not I am capable of being in healthy loving relationships; fears about whether or not I can be genuinely honest and connected with myself so that I can then open up and share with others; fears about organizing to genuinely build and share power with others.
Every person I meet bears the scars of patriarchy. When I push myself to really look and take the time to think about how each of us is deeply impacted on a very different scale depending on our gender, sexuality, and experience, I’m filled with sadness. bell hooks, in her book All About Love, writes that love is impossible where the will to dominate exists. Can I genuinely love? I want to believe I can. I want to believe in a political practice for gender-privileged men forged in opposition to patriarchy. A political practice informed by a systemic analysis that points to the hundreds of proactive steps and strategies to create anti-sexist male leadership. A political practice that moves men to meaningfully join with people of other genders in collective struggle to reorganize our society toward systemic liberation.
I do believe that as we struggle against oppression, as we practice our commitments, we actualize and express our humanity. There are moments, experiences and events when I see patriarchy challenged by all genders, and it shows what we can do. I believe that men must take on the struggle against patriarchy as a fight for our humanity.
And in this fight we, as men, will realize that even in the face of these systems of oppression, our love, beauty, creativity, passion, dignity, and power grows. We can do this and we need to love, support and take care of one another as we challenge, push and encourage each other.
Conclusion: “We Must Walk to Make the Struggle Real”
While it’s necessary to get into the hard emotional and psychological issues, there are also concrete steps men must take to challenge male supremacy.
When talking with a friend who does Palestine Solidarity activism about ways that men can challenge male supremacy, she responded, “Gender-privileged people can offer to take notes in meetings, make phone calls, find meeting locations, do childcare, make copies and other less glamorous work. They can encourage women and gender oppressed people in a group to take on roles men often dominate (e.g. strategic leadership in actions, MCing an event, media spokespeople). You can ask specific women if they want to do it, and explain why you think they would be good, as oppose to tokenizing just to get a woman to do it. Pay attention to who you listen to and check yourself on power-tripping.”
She is one of thousands of women and gender oppressed people who have outlined clear, concrete action steps that people with gender privilege can take to challenge sexism and work for liberation. There is an abundant supply of work to be done. The larger question for me has been, “What will it take for me to actually do that work, to actually prioritize it and follow through on it?” In addition to men talking with each other, we also need to hold each other accountable to follow through. There are a lot of heavy emotional issues that come up in doing this work and it is critical that we keep each other from getting lost and help each other take concrete steps forward. Each of us must persistently ask ourselves how our work supports the leadership of women, how we are working to share power in our organizing, and how we are making ourselves open to hearing feedback from gender oppressed people about our work. Each of these questions generates next steps to make it happen. Examining and challenging privilege is a necessary aspect of our work, but it’s not enough. Men working with other men to challenge male supremacy is just one of many, many strategies needed to develop women-led, multiracial, anti-racist, feminist, queer and trans liberationist, working class based, anti-capitalist movements for collective liberation.
We know that sexism will work to undermine movement building. The question is what work will we do to help build movement, and in the process expand our ability to love others and ourselves.
1. The visibility and size of our cultural scene created opportunities and generated strong responses. Two moments in particular come to mind. The first is when two cheerleaders from the senior squad came to a party “to check it out” and their football player boyfriends stood in front of my parent’s house refusing to come in because it was “full of communists and faggots.” Half an hour after their arrival, the cheerleaders went outside, told their boyfriends that they were tired of being disrespected as women and broke up with them. While the cheerleaders returned to the party, exuberant and celebrating, the now ex-boyfriends refused to leave and began making threats to fight people. I went out, gave them a few beers and talked them down. The cheerleaders joined our community, their ex-boyfriends periodically tried to start fights, but we stuck together, stood our ground and de-escalated the situation with claims that fighting was stupid and meaningless. Because there were so many of us, we had the motivation of our convictions, and we were organized, this worked, time and time again with a wide range of young men who tried to start fights with young men in our group. That said, another reason we were able to de-escalate was that some of us knew how to fight and we had a lots of support amongst the wider student body, including other football players, athletes, and punks who wouldn’t shy away from a fight. On the second occasion, we were holding one of our weekly “revolutionary dance parties”, with over fifty people, almost entirely teenagers, in the middle of a main street and public square. A truck full of guys in their twenties drove by yelling “faggots,” over and over again. Most of us had no idea who they were. They eventually pulled up, jumped out of the truck with baseball bats and charged the dance party, yelling homophobic epitaphs. They said they just wanted to fight one person who they said was that “faggot” from their old high school. Immediately, we surrounded the person they wanted, and began pogo dancing (jumping up and down) around him, and he ducked down in the middle. We were scared that they would begin swinging those bats, but we stuck together and began chanting “No Violence!” as we danced to send a clear message and build the unity and energy of the crowd. We got louder and louder and our energy was electric. The guys with the bats left, disoriented and confused, denouncing us all as “fags” and we cheered and danced on. It was a powerful and exuberant experience, as many of us had experienced being threatened, intimidated, scared, and at times humiliated, based on our gender, sexuality, race and/or politics when we were alone or in small groups. Experiences like this nourished us and attracted people to our politics and efforts.
2. We strongly identified with the politics of Love and Rage and the national network gave us a connection to something larger then ourselves. For more on Love and Rage, see A New World in Our Hearts: Eight Years of Writing from the Love and Rage Federation, edited by Roy San Filippo.
3. Peter Kropotkin, born in 1842 was one of the leading anarchist theoreticians of the anarchist movement from the 1880s until his death in 1921. He developed the theory of anarchist-communism and helped build an anarchist-communist movement around the world. His books Conquest of Bread and Mutual Aid were studied widely. Kropotkin was studied in the UAF as well and we distributed several of his essays and books.
4. While I do not believe that society is neatly organized into these three distinct categories, it has been helpful as a general framework to help develop more realistic analysis of power.
“Going to Places that Scare Me: Personal Reflections on Challenging Male Supremacy” is an excerpt from the critically acclaimed book, Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy by Chris Crass.
This post was originally published on Truth-Out.org and is republished here with the author’s permission.
Photo credit: Flickr/Garry Knight